Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Standards of Practice for Ethnography in Industry


Ethnography is at a crossroads. A methodology that was once the exclusive preserve of anthropologists, with its precursors found among a few colonial administrators, intrepid explorers, Indian agents, and their academic advisors, and, at least in the eyes of anthropologists, “owned” by anthropology, has in the past fifty years been embraced by numerous academic disciplines including sociology, education research, design research, and management studies. The founding and ten-year growth of the EPIC conference is recognition within numerous quarters that ethnography matters. Central to EPIC is “the view that theory and practice inform one another and that the integration of rigorous methods and theory from multiple disciplines creates transformative value for businesses.”

Overlapping with ethnography’s evolution, during the last several decades, the application of anthropology in business has gained increasing recognition; although, as Sarah J. S. Wilner (2014) demonstrates, depictions of anthropology in non-academic media are more exotic than accurate. Nonetheless, in the popular press with articles such as “Anthropology, Inc.” (The Atlantic), “Bill Gates as Anthropologist” (New York Times 2005, commenting on an article in Fortune Small Business, “Pigmy Hunters”) or “An Anthropologist Walks into a Bar” (Harvard Business Review), there is a growing recognition that anthropology is no longer confined to the study of indigenous peoples, but rather has a clear and important role to play in contemporary industrial societies as a tool for advancing commercial enterprises. What was once an academic specialism guided by the patrimonial hierarchies of the academic world is now out in the marketplace and the public square, with numerous research professionals identifying themselves as anthropologists or ethnographers. The fact that there are no licensing standards for anthropologists or ethnographers (such as exist for physicians and attorneys), along with apparent marketplace demand, suggests that this proliferation will continue.

In the middle of this maelstrom, and perhaps stirring it up, a small but growing sub-discipline, Business Anthropology, asserts itself as an essential field harnessing anthropological theory and methods in, of, and for business. Tracing its roots back to Lloyd Warner’s studies of modern factories, Business Anthropology over the last twenty years has grown from a solitary program at Wayne State University into a multi-national network, with programs at universities in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In this process the boundaries of ethnography, business, and anthropology are increasingly interrogated.

This, of course, is an important discussion that was taken up by EPIC at its very first meeting, and has continued every year since. For example, Marietta Baba’s keynote at the first EPIC conference, “To the End of Theory-Practice ‘Apartheid’: Encountering the World,” made the case for anthropological engagement in contemporary business concerns (2005). In “The De-Skilling of Ethnographic Labor: Signs of an Emerging Predicament,” Gerald Lombardi observed that the same pressures of rationalization that were imposed on many other crafts in the past two centuries were now being imposed on ethnography (and, one might add, with online colleges, many other forms of academic enterprise) (2009). Likewise, Inga Treitler and Frank Romagosa, in “Ethnographer Diasporas and Emergent Communities of Practice: The Place for a 21st Century Ethics in Business Ethnography Today,” posed the issue of ethical boundaries when ethnography is enlisted for business purposes (2009), and Melissa Cefkin, in “Practice at the Crossroads: When Practice Meets Theory, a Rumination,” raised the issue of theoretical boundaries (2010).1

With these issues swirling around, and with a familiarity regarding discussions in EPIC over ethnography, anthropology, “real” anthropology, and “anthro-lite,” on September 7, 2014, we held a workshop on “Toward Conceptual, Methodological, and Ethical Standards of Practice in Business Anthropology.” This workshop was initially envisioned as a first step in an ongoing discussion within EPIC on the character of Business Anthropology. In the course of the workshop we determined that this was not the optimal way to frame the discussion. We hoped that the conversations would ultimately lead to a document that could express standards for the field. We recognized that codification of standards would be a challenging task given that crafting and gaining agreement on standards of any kind is a complex and often problematic process.

Standards can be either aspirational or demarcational: they can either present something for the larger community to aspire to, or they can be used to draw boundaries distinguishing legitimate practitioners from others. Mature professions, such as law, medicine, architecture, and engineering, have established their professional identities, combining academic preparation, board certification, and state licensure; these are typically the result of numerous years of discussion and negotiation. For the present, within an EPIC context, we have concluded that it is important not to draw boundaries between what is and is not Business Anthropology—a task that is problematic to say the least (see, for example, Moeran et al. 2012)—but rather to hold up models of excellence that practitioners might aspire to, and to create a shared understanding of conceptual, educational, methodological, and ethical foundations.

Entering the September session, we had four objectives or questions that we hoped to address:

  • Should there be ongoing discussion and perhaps codification of the conceptual, educational, methodological, and ethical foundations or standards of Business Anthropology?
  • If so, what is the substantive content such an initiative, and how broadly should foundations and/or standards be defined?
  • How, where, and when should foundations and/or standards be presented? Do they need to be adopted by a professional society? Which one?
  • What is the best means for building a network for propagating these practices?

Workshop participants were given required readings in advance of the session. The content of the workshop combined general discussion, ideation, and breakout groups to work on specific issues. It concluded with teams crafting draft statements that could lead to principles/standards. At the end of the workshop we concluded that we had an intense and productive experience that should be the beginning of a fruitful discussion among the larger EPIC community.

In our general and breakout sessions we identified a number of questions, summarized under the following headings:

  1. The definition of Business Anthropology within the EPIC context: This encompasses how we understand the “big tent” of Business Anthropology or, perhaps more appropriately given EPIC’s scope, ethnographic praxis in industry. Some of the questions that fall under this heading include: Should we define who is a business anthropologist? If yes, how so? How is this designation made applicable? Should there be a title change from Business Anthropology to ethnography in business or industrial practice? How can we create inclusive terminology? What is “authentic” Business Anthropology, a term used by one session participant, and how does this differ, if it does, from applied business ethnography? Should authenticity be the goal of Business Anthropology or industrial ethnography research?
  2. Methodology: Some of the questions that fall under this heading include: Should there be/are there certain methods that are more anthropology-focused? Is there a hierarchy of methods? Do we need to include other disciplines and, if so, which ones and to what degree? What skill sets can be learned from other disciplines? If other disciplines are incorporated, will Business Anthropology still be Business Anthropology, and does that matter? Should we create or have we already created a new, perhaps broader form of ethnographic investigation that is more inclusive and more appropriate for EPIC? Is it possible to conduct ethnography without theory? What does theory provide to research that makes theory indispensable? As several participants commented: Is ethnography only a methodological tool? What is its relationship to theory?
  3. Ethics: This is a realm that includes practice standards and codes of conduct, who owns data, management of risk to research subjects and affected communities, etc. Some of the questions that fall under this heading include: Who owns the publication of proprietary information? How do we solve conflicts among professional codes (AAA, NAPA, etc)? Should there be some monitoring of ethics and, if yes, monitored by whom? Should there be different standards of ethics for business in contrast to academic research? Can disciplinary diversity (business, anthropology, other disciplines) be reflected in ethical diversity? EPIC’s online discussion forum,, has numerous posts on ethics; for additional perspectives, see Morais and Malefyt (2014).
  4. Relationship with Universities and Organizations: This area includes training programs, the AAA, SfAA, NAPA, etc. Some of the questions that fall under this heading include: How does/should Business Anthropology relate to established institutions such as universities and the AAA? How can these institutions create programs to best serve Business Anthropology and EPIC?
  5. Credentials: This entails an extensive discussion of training as well as degrees and certifications. Some of the questions that would fall under this heading include: How do we define credentials for anthropological/ethnographic business practice? Should we even attempt to do so? What should the educational level of researchers be? Does it matter? Is the academic subject important or should we advocate for an inter-disciplinary approach? Is an anthropology degree important or not? Patricia Ensworth’s EPIC paper (2012) is a valuable primer in regard to the question of credentialing, and we suggest that anyone interested in credentialing read it.

With this post we hope to begin an ongoing dialogue on all of the above topics. In the process, we also would like to encourage more interaction between anthropologists and those in the EPIC community who have not engaged with Business Anthropology. We extend this invitation in particular because we feel that both EPIC and anthropology will benefit from an exchange of ideas and methods.

From our perspective, we note that the professional culture of anthropology is evolving, facing a choice between maintaining its deep roots in academic institutions and growing in selected industries and institutions in the larger society. This is a fateful choice, one that even the AAA recognizes intertwines with the future of anthropology. A too-facile answer without weighing the multiple advantages and challenges of the options is a sure way to stunt anthropology’s further growth. Universities have as their core mission the training of professionals, educating citizens, and conducting basic research, and some of the best universities in the world are represented at EPIC. Academics are at their best when they are asking difficult questions, leading to unexpected findings such as the hidden cultural forces that shape consumer desire or the cultural dynamics behind industrial accidents. Almost by definition, academics are not practical, although there are obvious exceptions to this generalization.

Such matters as theory, standards, and credentialing are primarily academic: the entire history of professionalization, as recounted in Burton Bledstein’s The Culture of Professionalism, was a convergence of university training, state authority, and guild traditions. Numerous professions have established bodies of theory and standards based on the authority conveyed by academic institutions. In our view, the abundant creativity and wide-ranging inquiry that EPIC represents could potentially be stifled by a rush toward adopting academic standards. Certainly, dialogue regarding conceptual, methodological, and ethical standards is desirable; the enthusiasm in our workshop provided ample evidence.

We suggest that such discussions within our community are essential for the vitality of both EPIC and Business Anthropology. Understanding the difference between ethnography and casual observation, or the importance of theory for sharpening observations, are matters that should not be ignored or be left to professors. They must be actively engaged by practitioners. It is probably neither expectable nor necessary that academic standards for ethnography (prolonged immersion guided by theoretical inquiry) guide praxis-type engagements. At the same time, there are certain minima that should guide all ethnographic engagements: do no harm, employ the vernacular, avoid insulting the hosts, and have a balanced and reciprocal relationship with the people at one’s field site. These guidelines are not just about good manners; they are essential to good social and behavioral science. Ethnographers who blunder into the field unaware of them tarnish their findings, their sponsors, and the discipline of ethnography.

Rather than adjudicate issues such as these, we hope that the EPIC community will build a dialogue over the reciprocal contributions of ethnographic praxis and Business Anthropology. The idea that pure science (e.g., anthropology) leads applied science (e.g., praxis) has long since been abandoned in Science and Technology Studies, and the contributions of practical problems (e.g., colonial administration) to anthropological theory (British structural functionalism) is well documented. Many practical problems today, such as privacy in an era of ubiquitous personal information, or valuations of the common good in the face of technological innovation, are waiting for adequate conceptualization. An atmosphere of balanced reciprocity and communication among and between practitioners and academics would only benefit both.

Our workshop was conceived with the assumption that Business Anthropology was central to EPIC. Through discussion during the session and reflection after it was over, we have concluded Business Anthropology and EPIC occupy a big tent, inclusive rather than exclusive. In this tent are scholars who don’t or rarely practice in business, practitioners who don’t contribute to scholarship, scholar-practitioners; ethnographers who do and do not apply theory, practitioners of arm-chair anthropology, and of anthropology applied in focus groups; face-to-face ethnographers and digital ethnographers; practitioners who identify as sociologists, those who apply other social and behavioral sciences and humanities; practitioners with a wide range of methodological and theoretical approaches; practitioners who adhere closely to the AAA, SfAA and NAPA ethical code and those who follow their own standards of conduct.

In a very real sense the EPIC conference, and the growing trend it represents of the immediacy of experience in today’s economy, brings highly refined research methods into the marketplace and the public square: the research that EPIC members conduct is at its best ethical, highly disciplined, and engaged in issues of great consumer and industry immediacy. EPIC, perhaps as much by evolution as by design, presents a partnership between academic disciplines—anthropology, but also sociology, psychology, design, and philosophy—and industry concerns in creative and technological fields. Affective markets, where the consumer is purchasing not just a commodity but a soulful experience, likewise call for ethnographic insight. For this partnership to work, we are seeking to build mutual comprehension and respect so that university professors understand in depth the moral and intellectual challenges of running a modern industrial enterprise, and that industrialists recognize and support the value added by these ancient institutions called universities.

By laying the foundation for a dialogue over these issues of methods, theory, and ethics in the partnership between ethnography and corporations, we hope that our workshop and this post advance this dialogue of mutual comprehension and respect.


1. The broader context of both EPIC and academic anthropology is the shifting institutional priorities in a post-industrial world: the growing importance of the “knowledge economy” contrasts with decreasing public support for knowledge institutions, and neoliberal, utilitarian priorities contrast with broader calls for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Although these are larger issues than can be discussed here, it is worth remembering that they supply the context for the shifting relationships among industries, universities, and the sort of knowledge that ethnography provides.


Baba, Marietta. 2005. To the End of Theory-Practice ‘Apartheid’: Encountering the World. EPIC Proceedings 2005, pages 205-217.

Bledstein, Burton. 1976. The Culture of Professionalism. New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Cefkin, Melissa. 2010. Practice at the Crossroads: When Practice Meets Theory, a Rumination. EPIC Proceedings 2010, pages 46-58.

Ensworth, Patricia. 2012. Badges, Branding, and Business Growth: The ROI of an Ethnographic Praxis Professional Certification. EPIC Proceedings 2012, pp. 263–277.

Lombardi, Gerald. 2009. The De-Skilling of Ethnographic Labor: Signs of an Emerging Predicament. EPIC Proceedings 2009, pages 41-49.

Madsbjerg, Christian, and Mikkel B. Rasmussen. An Anthropologist Walks into a Bar … Harvard Business Review, March 2014, 80-88.

Moeran, Brian, et al. 2012. Opinions: What Business Anthropology is, What it Might Become… and What, Perhaps, It Should Not Be. Journal of Business Anthropology 1 (2): 240-297 Autumn.

Morais, Robert J. and Timothy de Waal Malefyt, eds. 2014. Special Issue #1: Ethics. Journal of Business Anthropology. Spring.

Treitler, Inga, and Frank Romagosa. 2009. Ethnographer Diasporas and Emergent Communities of Practice: The Place for a 21st Century Ethics in Business Ethnography Today. EPIC Proceedings 2009, pages 50-58.

Wilner, Sarah J. S. 2014. A Crisis of Representation? Anthropology in the Popular Business Media. In Handbook of Anthropology in Business, Rita Denny and Patricia Sunderland, eds. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Wood, Graeme. 2013. Anthropology, Inc. The Atlantic, March 2013, 48-56.



Allen W. Batteau, Wayne State University

Allen W. Batteau is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wayne State University. Prior to joining Wayne State, he was Director of Research and Training at Wizdom Systems, Inc., a software firm in Naperville, Illinois. His recent books include The Dragon in the Cockpit (Jing Hung-Sying and Allen Batteau) and Technology and Culture.

Robert J. Morais, Weinman Schnee Morais, Inc.

Robert J. Morais is a Principal at Weinman Schnee Morais, a marketing research firm in New York. He is co-author of Advertising and Anthropology, author of Refocusing Focus Groups, and most recently contributed a chapter to the Handbook of Anthropology in Business.